“After the crazy puzzle of Hazards, everybody was excited to try to make a regular record this time around.”


Decemberists Auteur Discusses the Evolution
of His Band’s Back-to-Basics Chart-topper
The King Is Dead, The Decemberists' improbable chart-topper, represents a radical departure from 2009’s The Hazards of Love. Whereas the previous undertaking was a wildly ambitious reimagining of British traditional music and myth, the new album’s touchstones are Neil Young’s Harvest, which bandleader Colin Meloy refers to as “the quintessential barn record,” SoCal country rock in general and R.E.M.’s pastoral jangle-fest Reckoning. Here, Meloy describes the concept and execution of this irresistible album with HITSBud Scoppa, who’s so long in the tooth that he interviewed the artists who created Meloy’s source material in the first place.

I suspect that you and the band were ready to dial it back a bit after the last few LPs.
Our records had become increasingly complex, reaching a kind of apotheosis with Hazards, and after having been embroiled in months of meticulous overdubbing and multitracking, we came out of there saying, ‘Next record, we’re gonna do like two weeks in a barn.’ In some ways, it was a euphemism that we made happen. After the crazy puzzle of Hazards, everybody was excited to try to make a regular record this time around. 

How did this radical change of course evolve?
The genesis of the concept for this record was undeniably a reaction to what kind of record Hazards was. But I was also in a very different headspace writing the songs for The King Is Dead, and that definitely added to the relaxed vibe. This was something we’ve been wanting to do for a long time. I’m really lucky to work with people who have humored me at every turn, and who’ve been remarkably game for everything I’ve thrown at them. While there’s not a ton of crossover in our record collections, we all love ‘genuine’ music, whatever that means, and for all of us, doing this record was a breath of fresh air. I feel like the record was really an exercise in restraint, from the writing to the recording. Rather than looking for opportunities to make songs bigger and more cinematic, we were cutting verses where they didn’t need to be there and making the songs economical.

What shape were the demos in when you presented them to [producer] Tucker Martine and the band?
My demoing process has definitely gotten more developed as I’ve become more comfortable doing home recording, so a lot of the arrangements were pretty well formed with just me putting my ideas down. Demoing is very handy; before I would just record voice and guitar, and I’d have these ideas for what the bass or the drums would sound like, but then I’d be stuck trying to explain them in rehearsal. And now, with a little more time demoing, they’re there—and I always tell everybody that they’re kind of a blueprint and you can discard them if you need to, but a lot of times they stick around. You see it in 360 this way—you get it out of your skull and see what it will sound like later.

It’s surprising how seamlessly the late-’60s/early-’70s feel of most the album coheres with the’80s jangle rock of the rest of it.
I came back to listening to Neil Young and the Byrds and Dylan much later, because that was always my parents’ music. It was ever-present growing up, but when I established my own musical identity, it was in opposition to what my parents were listening to—that junior high school rebellion thing. But little did I realize that the guys who were inspiring me were steeped in that stuff. So I got Dylan and Syd Barrett through Robyn Hitchcock, the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers through R.E.M., Fairport Convention through Bob Mould and Husker Du, because Richard Thompson was his guitar hero. So it’s interesting to see the layers there.

Before or during recording The King Is Dead, did you listen to Harvest, Reckoning or any of the albums that inspired it?
Those records are never far from the record player, though I didn’t need to dust them off. But even though I know Reckoning inside and out, the mastering job on the reissue was so fantastic that it reconnected me with not only that record but the music I was listening to at that time from that genre. It reminded me of why I started playing music in the first place. I’ve spent the last four or five years mining a kind of music that I’d only recently discovered—a lot of it ’60s British psych-folk and listening to Reckoning got me excited about getting back to some of my early, primal influences: R.E.M., Robyn Hitchcock, Camper Van Beethoven, The Smiths and things like that.

So you’re playing your record collection more on this album than you ever have.
On the last couple records, I’ve been playing a certain section of my record collection; this one grabs from all sides.

Bringing in Peter Buck and Gillian Welch strikes me as another natural extension of the concept.
With Peter Buck, that was a no-brainer. And with getting Gillian on board, in a certain genre—Comes a Time and GP, going back to Dolly Parton and Porter Waggoner—there’s often the marrying of a male and female vocal hot in the mix, two voices with a solid identity. We wanted to pay homage to that kind of music.

You give Buck some competition with your 12-string playing on “This Is Why We Fight”.
I’m doing my Johnny Marr impression. I’ve listened to The Smiths records so much that that pattern is ingrained in my skull and my muscle memory.

Team Lipman doubles up. (11/26a)
Season's bleatings (11/23a)
Deck the Grammys with boughs of Holly. (11/24a)
Rolling out our U.K. Special print issue (11/24a)
Olivia, the Biebs, H.E.R., Doja Cat, Billie and Jon Batiste lead the way. (11/24a)
Stuffing (in face).

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